The Collector (review)

29 Jul

As a teenage night owl, I lived for late night movies. It was a time before infomercials when stations would offer their cruddy, their cult and challenging films. It was during this time I discovered ‘The Collector’.

Starring Terrence Stamp, the film focused on a recently wealthy butterfly-collecting loner, Frederick, who stalks and abducts a woman, imprisoning her in the cellar of his remote home. A battle of wit against force ensues as Miranda tries to escape, realising she has become nothing more than another butterfly to add to his collection. In its grim black and white mundanity, the film was bizarrely compelling despite being shoddy filler for a growing actor.

Over the years, I thrilled when Neil Gaiman referenced the film in Sandman‘s ‘The Doll House’ and devoured the book, once discovered. It’s easy to see why the director originally turned in a three hour film only to eventually acquiesce to the the studio’s demands. The book is hypnotic, directly giving Frederick and Miranda’s point of view. It was a rich insight into their motivations, their back stories and reactions. Followed by an era of gorno (torture porn), it stands apart for its use of psychology and exploration of class and privilege and has become a personal favourite.

So it was a surprise to receive an invite to a theatrical adaptation of the novel, if only because I wasn’t aware anyone else knew of the work. I was asked to speak on a panel after regarding violence against women and felt immense trepidation. I despise feminism for feminism’s sake, I rail against stories needing to be perfectly balanced where no violence or sexist characters exist.

It’s a conversation I have often with one friend when we debate the gender issues in Sherlock because apparently my life is one of such intellectual vigour and challenge, I must tackle the really big issues. She tells me the show is sexist, the main characters are sexist and the fact Irene Adler was cast as a dominatrix was sexist. I point out to her that Sherlock in the books rarely cared for women, discriminated on the basis no one was him rather than to discriminate on gender, that it is a character defining trait that can drive both the role and story and that there was a suggestion in the original book that Adler was a sex worker. I don’t mind there being sexist characters as long as they aren’t the only ones.

But with The Collector, I feared revisionism at play  and delved back into the book, desperate to arm myself and slowly dreading both the play and the panel. I’ll get bored and my temper will show, I thought huffily. As a committed recalcitrant who can spin from happiness at whim, I felt assured my night was going to be terrible.

What a complete idiot I am.

The play is staged in an actual car park deep within Collingwood near the council flats. Descending below, we sat in cold emptiness, surrounding a car. It’s dark and the play opens with the red light thrown by Frederick lighting his cigarette.

As he lumbered towards the audience, as he drew on his smoke and delivered a monologue with a thin, reedy voice, we all instinctively huddled together. I felt panicked and wanted to run – it took focus to grip onto my fingers and concentrate on the play.

The theatrical adaptation of the Collector quietly and expertly highlights violence against women and casts the audience as unwilling potential victims and aggressors, forcing hypervigilance. Scenes are staged where you  see Miranda objectified, literally reduced to a series of body parts rather than the talented and promising student she was. The car – sole set piece – is driven around tightly a few times, placing the audience on alert (as if the flashing lights weren’t enough) they were in danger and equally vulnerable to Frederick’s menace.

The performances are powerful. Tristan Meecham portrays the arrested contradictions of Frederick perfectly, smiling benignly or meekly curling into himself before yelling with the ferocity of his full power and threat. Playwright Kristina Brew plays Miranda for the conflicted and intelligent young person she was in the book – valiantly struggling with the rules society placed upon her, trying to navigate an escape against her captor while defending her vivacity, her undeniable confusion and fire so common with younger people (something reviews of this play have apparently ignored).

It is their use of voice that tears the most at the audience and takes the play from the titillating torture soft porn as viewed on ‘Criminal Minds‘ and the like, taking it into new territory. Miranda and Frederick’s voices and the use of microphone ushered their rasping, their soft panic, conversational swatting and screams against the audience like weapons. We instinctively jumped when Meecham (Frederick) and Brew screamed with aggression or terror – it wasn’t because they were loud but because they were so real, making us flinch with expected attack.

Does this use of terror make the play worthwhile? Definitely. By holding us to alert, by drawing the audience in to consider the true violence that is perpetrated against women. This adaptation isn’t gratuitous, it is needed and slaps us awake from cultural hypnosis to see a shade of what true violence is like, to dislodge us from our blase acceptance of assault as a plot or character device (rape as female motivator in games, I’m looking at you).

Though the play doesn’t focus as closely on class as the original novel, it does play on gender and objectification offered by Fowles and, as confirmed with others after the play, represents the novel in a balanced way. That a play or film highlights other issues from source material isn’t new and it should be noted there are multiple references to class privilege within the play. But, as someone who was previously incredulous this theme would be downplayed and determined to not enjoy the performance, it makes complete sense when you see the rich vein of material Brew explores. She perfectly captures the objectification of women gleaned from Fowles’ pages, she throws the violence into a harsh light unshadowed from mawkish voyeurism and spares us the more florid passages.

If there is any criticism to share, it is that the relationship with G.B. (a man who was in love with Miranda) isn’t referenced enough though, logistically, this would have been unreasonable to both narrative and time but would have absolutely hammered the points home about gender, objectification and potentially explained Miranda’s developing views on class and privilege (she vacillates wildly from ‘I accept everyone’ to hating the “new people” in the book). Even then, this criticism is more of a nice to have than critical deficiency.

The Collector is powerful theatre that made a definite impact on its audience. The play is wonderfully acted, the sound and space will terrify you and the result is uncompromising in its message and intent.

I was a fool to ever doubt them and you’ll be a fool if you don’t catch this play before it ends on Saturday.

The Collector
24 July – 3 August, 7:30pm
Tickets: $25 each
Bookings: Tickets are available online or can be bought at the door (subject to availability).
Venue: Collingwood Underground Arts Park – 44 Harmsworth Street, Collingwood
www.theartisancollective.com

One Response to “The Collector (review)”

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  1. The 63rd Down Under Feminists’ Carnival | can be bitter - August 6, 2013

    […] theatre, Amy Gray (Pesky Feminist) reviewed the recent adaptation of The Collector and in film, Liz at No Award watched Pacific Rim so you don’t have […]

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